Violin

By Daniel Hathaway

Oberlin, OH — August 18, 2011

Six violinists — the winners of Tuesday evening’s concerto round and all of them female — took the stage of Warner Concert Hall on Wednesday evening, August 17, to play 30-minute recitals. Each of the six had brought impressive technique to bear on their earlier performances. The big question to be answered tonight: which three would demonstrate the cumulative musical maturity, composure and personality to earn them the privilege of playing a concerto on Friday evening at Severance Hall with Jahja Ling and one of the most distinguished orchestras on the planet?

Gergana Haralampieva (17, Bulgaria) led off with movements from Bach and Beethoven, and moved on to Kreisler and Ravel. She used minimal vibrato in her sensitive account of the Andante from Bach’s Sonata in a, BWV 1003 and her Beethoven (the first movement of the Sonata in D, op. 12, no. 1) was spacious and stylish. She underplayed the virtuosity and pointed up the humor in Kreisler’s Caprice Viennois, and revealed the gypsy blood coursing through the veins of Ravel’s volatile Tzigane. Dark and moody at the beginning, it turned into a supple, sensual dance. Ms. Haralampieva played fantastic harmonics and made a thrilling crescendo and accellerando into the final cadence. She’s an unassuming stage presence, but her temperament clearly shines through in her playing.

Alexandra Switala (17, Grapevine, TX) chose the Allegro from the same Bach sonata (BWV 1003), the Adagio from Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A, K. 219, and a big fantasy by Henryk Wieniawski. She took some liberties with rhythm in the Bach but played the Mozart quite strictly with little change in color and tight vibrato. She seemed a bit shy about letting everything hang out in the Wieniawski Faust Fantasy, an episodic showpiece which needs a more over-the-top approach to bring out its character, but the little waltz with high harmonics alternating with arpeggios was quite charming.

Laura Park (17, Des Plaines, IL) brought her huge tone and impressive technique to Bach, Paganini, Schoenberg and Saint-Saëns (adapted by Ysaÿe), painting all four composers with similar brush strokes. The Siciliano and Presto from Bach’s first sonata (BWV 1001) were too heavy to resemble dance movements. Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 sounded aggressive and intonation problems abounded. Schoenberg’s Phantasy, op. 47 continued in the same vein, though Ms. Park sought some relief from angularity and forte dynamics in the lyrical sections. She ended with the Caprice After the Study in the Form of a Waltz, op. 52, no. 6 (what a title!), which was similarly big and intense, though she managed some playful moments.

After intermission, Kelly Talim (15, Japan) played three works: the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in D, op. 12, no. 1, Antonio Bazzini’s La Ronde des Lutins and Bartók’s Second Rhapsody, all with admirable technique, but all similarly intense in approach. Her Beethoven sounded pushed, and while her Bartók had arresting moments, both pieces were played with the same tone and timbre. Bazzini’s Dance of the Goblins is in many respects a silly showpiece, but Ms. Talim had the technique to pull it off, if not quite the level of composure to keep it entirely under her control.

Mayumi Kanagaawa (16, Japan) took the risk of beginning and ending with works for unaccompanied violin, sandwiching non-virtuosic Beethoven and quite virtuosic Wieniawski in between. Her Siciliano from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 (BWV 1001) was dancelike and experimented with different timbres. Her Beethoven (the Romance in G) was simply lovely, with beautiful tone, well-shaped phrases and fine intonation. Wieniawski’s Polonaise Brilliante No. 2 was bright, cheerful and characteristic; she seemed to be having fun playing it. Finally, her strong, fluent performance of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Ballade (Sonata No. 3) was well shaped and full of color and nuance.

That was a tough act to follow, but Sirena Huang (17, South Korea) was equally impressive in Beethoven, Bloch, Paganini and Ravel, changing her own musical persona to dig deeply into the individual personalities of all four works. The first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in G was buoyant and stylish. Ms. Huang flipped a switch and became a soulful Jewish fiddler for Ernest Bloch’s Nigun (the Improvisation from the Baal Shem Suite). Pagnini’s Caprice No. 1 was a virtuosic little entremet, but she tossed it off with aplomb, and with impressive cross stringing and shaping of lines. Another stylistic transformation produced the second remarkable Tzigane of the evening, this one with a distinctly French rather than Eastern European accent. Ms. Huang played it with elan and with excellent rhythm. All of it was captivating, but the ponticello passage (played on the bridge of the instrument) made one sit up even straighter to take notice (was that an Erhu we just heard?)

After hearing their concerto rounds, it was interesting to see what these six players would do in a wider range of repertory, and the results were revealing. They had excellent support from their piano partners tonight. Christine Hill takes the prize for sheer numbers, having played with Ms. Switala, Ms. Park and Ms. Talim. Roberta Whitely partnered with Ms. Haralampieva and Ms. Huang, while Yu Sakamoto joined Ms. Kanagawa in Beethoven and Wieniawski and enjoyed an excellent onstage seat for Bach and Ysaÿe.

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